The lights are low. Everyone’s fighting in a panic against a seemingly impossible, oppressive deadline. At every turn there’s a crippling lack of resources. By any objective criteria, the small, inexperienced team doesn’t have the skills to achieve its aims and is crammed into a single room – half of one, in fact, since it’s one room bisected with screens. When you look at where and how Irrational worked on its first game, it’s easy to think of the claustrophobic horror of System Shock 2 as a pure product of its environment.
In fact, when looking at their situation in their early years, you begin to wonder why Irrational’s co-founders Ken Levine, Rob Fermier and Jonathan Chey splintered from Boston’s illustrious and much-missed Looking Glass Studios in the first place.
“Looking Glass was obviously a really impactful experience on me,” Levine explains. “It was my first job in the games industry. I’d met a lot of people who I really respected and admired – people whose legacy is more known to the intelligentsia of the gaming field, and is still being felt. I left because despite how talented the people were there, in some ways it was more like a university than a games company. There really was a dialogue about advancing the media, but not a lot about making successful products.”
Coming from a film-industry background, Levine felt the company needed to find a balance between art and commerce: “I thought, probably naively at the time, ‘Hey! I can do that’. I had no idea what that would actually mean, as I was a cocky guy who thought it’d be easy. We went off on our own and very quickly found it was challenging.” Almost fatally so. The company’s first project, a singleplayer version of early isometric shooter Fireteam, had been cancelled when its publisher decided to concentrate solely on multiplayer. This left Irrational at a loss, until Paul Neurath, head of Looking Glass, called with an opportunity. While they’d left Looking Glass, they were still on good terms with their previous employer. In fact, their half room was actually buried in a corner of the larger studio.
Neurath’s offer was incredibly open. Looking Glass had, in making Thief: The Dark Project, developed its own in-house engine. All of Irrational were experienced with it, having all worked on Thief. Why not make a game with it with us? Any game you fancy, really. “We immediately started designing,” Levine recalls.
“The three partners sat down, and we ended up with a game design which was basically our design for Shock 2, but in a totally different world. It was a kind of Heart Of Darkness story, with a military commander gone crazy and your mission was to go to this crazy spaceship and assassinate him.”
This was pitched around various publishers. The one that bit was Electronic Arts, which – through its purchase of Origin – was in possession of the System Shock IP. EA suggested that the game could, in fact, be System Shock 2. “And we said, ‘Um… sure’,” Levine laughs. “I rewrote the story and changed a few of the things, but the game design never changed.”
It was a rare opportunity. The original System Shock was one of the games that made Levine want to move into the videogame industry in the first place. What made it so special? “The feeling of being in a real place,” he raves. “The feeling of a mystery, of unraveling it – not in an adventure game way, but in the context of an action game. You arrive and… what happened? That’s a really good storytelling mechanism.” Austin Grossman and Doug Church’s original idea from Shock was something Irrational expanded in its sequel. “In Shock 1 you were a specific guy, you had a backstory,” Levine notes. “With Shock 2, I started you out with the classic ‘wake up with amnesia’.”
Abstract techniques and settings weren’t all the Shock license gave the team. It gave Irrational access to one of videogaming’s most startling antagonists, the hubristic artificial intelligence SHODAN. In the first System Shock, she frustrated and mocked the player at every turn, a rare case of a game’s primary antagonist being an almost constant presence.
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